What I’ve Learned About Saying No

The past couple (few) (several) years have been, excitingly and exhaustively, very full of professional commitments and opportunities for me. I have been very lucky and have worked very hard and am overall proud of what I’ve accomplished. I have also been very tired, and have been very stressed.

Are you this tired? It might be time to say no too.

Me being tired

More recently, my not-so-new job as a supervisor has proven to draw on my energies in different ways than my previous jobs and that means I need in turn to arrange my commitments in different ways. So, over the last couple of years, for the first time in my career, I have been turning down more outside-of-work professional projects than I’ve been accepting. And there are so many amazing librarians with so many amazing ideas and there is so much work to be done…and I learn by doing and I like working with great people and I enjoy being busy…well, frankly, this has been a difficult transition for me.

However, two years into my saying-no process, I can also say that it’s been completely worthwhile, and I’m starting to feel more balanced and less stressed than I have for a long time. I’ve also thought a lot about saying no, and so here are some of the things I’ve learned.

It Gets Easier

I know how grateful I am when someone says yes to my request for help, and it feels so good to pay that forward and help someone else. It’s hard to say no because everyone is working hard and I don’t want to let anyone down! And I’m a little afraid of how they will feel! But every time I know I should write that email & don’t want to, I remember the last time I did and that no one wrote me a crappy email back. They may be disappointed, yes, but no one has ever been unreasonable or angry. Remembering that I’m working with professionals who understand what managing commitments entails makes it easier to hit send each time. And the more I do say no, the more my schedule is actually doable, and I remember how much I like doable, which gives me more motivation to maintain a sustainable schedule.

It Doesn’t Get Easier

There’s certainly the relief of not taking something on, when I know I am booked solid. But there’s also regret at not getting to do something cool. And then that something comes around and gets advertised (a workshop, a conference, a blog tour, whatever) and I remember I could have said yes and been a part of it and I go through the regret all over again, and I’m not going to lie, that hasn’t gotten easier. Or I’ll say no and then 4 months later I’m talking to a friend and all of a sudden I realize the cool thing they’re telling me about that they got to do is the something I said no to and it sounds just as fun as I knew it was going to be when I said no. I say yes to things because I LIKE doing things, and when I see them go by without me I do feel a little sad.

Your No Is Your Yes

Yet every time I say no to something, I am saying yes to something I AM ALREADY DOING. I am making sure I continue to have enough time to devote to projects I have already made commitments to. Remembering this is probably one of the best strategies I’ve learned for dealing with the regret of letting opportunities go. I love how it reframes a negative thought into a positive.

Your No Is Someone Else’s Yes

When I say no it means someone else is going to get to say yes. How cool is that? I know I’ve gotten my share of invitations because someone has said no, but THEN said, “But you know who would be good is…” and then has named me along with a few others. When you want to start saying no, make a list of who else you can recommend. Ask colleagues in advance if they’d like to be recommended, and for what types of opportunities. Think of colleagues with less experience for whom you can give the same kind of boost that perhaps one of your mentors had given you. I have a running list like this now, and it takes the sting out of turning something down when I can immediately say, “I can’t take this on right now but you know who would be good?”

It Takes Time

For me saying no was less like declaring bankruptcy and more like making snowball debt payments. I didn’t quit everything I had going on at once; I started saying no to new things and looking for ways to reduce my level of responsibility in current projects. And it took me probably 12-18 months to really start to see the effects on my calendar & peace of mind and almost 2 years to come down finally to my goal level. This was a long process for me and it FELT like a long process. If you are ready to start saying no, make some lists and plan some exit strategies so your expectations are realistic.

It Doesn’t Take Time

I am a big planner and when I realized I had shifted from “busy” to “overwhelmed,” part of me felt like I needed a plan for saying no before I could start saying no. Well, I didn’t, I just needed to say no to that Next Thing. And then the Next Thing After That. As the nos piled up and my time started to free up, then I was able to think a little more systematically about my next steps & next goals, and be a little more strategic about my nos and my yesses.

I have more to say about saying no! Watch for two more posts, about different types of no, and knowing when to say no.

In the meantime, what do you know about saying no?

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7 Responses to What I’ve Learned About Saying No

  1. Amy Koester says:

    I most relate to the part where it’s really hard to say “no” to projects that are cool and/or important and/or include great people. It can be hard to reconcile that feeling of “I want to have my hand in these things because I learn so much and have so much fun” with the stress feeling of “How can I possibly manage all of these things?” It’s hard to be choosey about projects, but it is completely necessary.

  2. Abby Johnson says:

    YES YES YES YES YES.

    First of all, I have tried to work with That Person who can’t say no to anything and so half-asses everything and it is HORRIBLE. After that experience, I vowed never to be That Person (and so far I don’t think I have…).

    Another thing I will add is that sometimes opportunities come back around. If you’re courteous about getting back to someone, even if you have to decline, they may still keep you in mind for the next conference/webinar/workshop/etc.

    Melissa, I’m so glad you wrote about this because I think it’s something we all need to hear!!

  3. Jeanine Lancaster says:

    Melissa, this is a very important topic – thanks for bringing it up! I especially like your point that saying ‘no’ to new opportunities is a way of saying ‘yes’ to current commitments. Saying ‘no’ also makes space for a future opportunity that may be exactly what we’re looking for, but that would be too much to take on if we had already said ‘yes’ too many times. So turning down a good opportunity holds a slot open for a great opportunity.

    I just read _Essentialism: The Disciplined pursuit of less_, by Greg McKeown, and recommend it to anyone struggling with reducing commitments so you can do what matters most. McKeown writes about graceful ways of saying ‘no’, as well as about how to filter out the nonessential.

    I’m looking forward to your future posts!

  4. I’ve been thinking alot about this lately as I watch people just sink under the weight of ALL.THE.THINGS. Saying no is important even if fun times/opportunities seem to be missed. The future is always ahead of us and many times that feeling of “This is my only chance” is completely crazy-wrong. Your frank assessment of the consequences of no are refreshing and thought-provoking. I look forward to your next posts on this topic to add to my thinking!

  5. I know that “no” is the most important word in our professional vocabulary when it comes time to consider what we might do outside of our work in our profession. All. the. Things. are shiny and good and the best but when we stress and exhaust ourselves in a way that cheats our work, our family or our well-being, no is what saves us. This post hits exactly those feels of push/pull we all face. I’m with you (and Abby) though that our no’s can create opportunities for others and often the door isn’t completely closed. Another chance comes around when we are ready and rested. Thanks for helping me push my own thinking on this.

  6. Melissa says:

    Thank you everyone for your kind words and support here! I am so not the only person to have spent time thinking about this topic, but it’s been a pretty important learning curve for me so I did want to add my two cents here at Mel’s Desk.

    I’m really grateful to Abby for adding that opportunities sometimes come around again–that has been my experience with one thing in particular and it’s so gratifying AND so freeing. Plus even if that same thing isn’t offered to you, sometimes similar things are instead.

    Jeanine, your point about nos leaving doors open for EVEN BETTER opportunities is a great one (and one I’ve heard Amy K put forward in a different conversation about this topic–hi Amy!–and as Marge followed up in her comment–hi Marge!) I’m looking forward to reading Essentialism, thank you for the recommendation!

    Marge, thanks for your thoughts too. Sinking under the weight of things is pretty much how I felt for a solid couple of years and I don’t wish that feeling on anyone. Plus, thinking we can “do more with less” is pretty much always a lie, especially when it comes to time and energy.

    OK, going to finish up my next post! Can’t wait to see what you smart people have to add. :)

  7. Beth Donaldson says:

    This is a great and timely post! I am starting a new position as a YS manager and have been concerned about doing too much and stressing out, etc… It’s good to hear that achieving a balance is possible. Thank you!

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